Why must POC recount the trauma, violence, and stress in our lives, to be considered a legitimate applicant in a University’s diversity pool?

This twitter screenshot image has been floating around Facebook for awhile now, and I can’t help but to relate.

In academia— just as in the media— people of colour (POC) are rarely given the opportunity to showcase the nuance that exist in our lives. 

Instead, our lives are to have been traumatic for our experiences to matter to those in the academy. It is purposefully set up this way, because it is through recounting traumas and stresses in our lives, that people of color are able to gain entrance into the academy. It’s almost like we must showcase this sort of stressful performance art for white decision makers, and token POC that can be empathetic to our experiences.

Earlier today, I read a piece on Nextshark titled: Until Three Months Ago, I Was Ashamed of Being Asian. In it, the author recounts how— in terms of school success— she felt like she had to buy into the ‘smart Asian’ stereotype. She notes that although her parents weren’t strict at home, her teachers assumed that they were and thus placed that stereotype on her. The ramifications of this were that they pitied her and wanted her to do extremely well, so as to not be punished by her ‘strict’ parents.

So at what level, subconscious or not, do POC in academia try to live up to certain stereotypes for success?

One of those ways is recounting traumas during the application stages in our personal statements. I remember doing this myself. I also fondly remember a time when I was in a position reading and editing personal statements, in which I noticed that the majority of white students statements were filled with volunteer and community service experiences, while POC statements were filled with trauma (personal, social, familial).

It was not that these students of color also did not do community service work or volunteer work. It is that they were advised to showcase their stresses and traumas—just as I was in high school whilst applying for college, and in college whilst applying to graduate school. Needless to say, both times made me feel uneasy, but I felt that showcasing my trauma was necessary—both times— to help my application.

Why must POC recount the trauma, violence, and stress in our lives, to be considered a legitimate applicant in a University’s diversity pool? 

At this point, I feel as if this performance that we are advised to undertake, is a tried and true “started from the bottom” and now I (the white institution) have given these people countless opportunities to succeed. It’s like the institutional (white) saviour from the burdens which come with our non-white races.

And no one—not even our advisors that are usually white, or our advisors of color, who have also been put through this same ‘hazing’ themselves—bats an eye about the stress of having to recollect horrific moments to increase a person of color’s chances of having a “good” personal statement. What’s worse, is that not all people of color have a horrific trauma to share or obstacle in which they have had to overcome. This undoubtedly also adds stress.

The truth is, the academy expects stories about struggle from their applicants of colour, and on some level, by expecting this, they are subconsciously admitting that they know the playing field is uneven. They know that people of color are treated unfairly within the United States. They know that the unfairness won’t end while we are on their college campuses. But this is fine to them. In recounting our trauma, they expect us to be humbled and grateful to their University for ‘saving’ us. Giving us an opportunity to escape and rise above our trauma. Because at the end of the day, minor successes still count as achieving the ever-illusive American Dream.

As I write this, I am currently in the stage of thinking about what to write for my personal statement. In it, I know that I do not want to recollect trauma— and if I do, I would not want to share it with anyone in my graduate department. So instead, I am choosing to write a nuanced statement, as a nuanced person. These kinds of statements often get labeled as being ‘not deep enough’ for who I am (identity wise), even though they are not less personal than my traumas. We shall see how it goes.

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